Marine biology grad­uate stu­dent Austin Gal­lagher has studied the dwin­dling shark pop­u­la­tion around the world—from the waters of the South Pacific to those off Southern California.

Now, as a research assis­tant at the New Eng­land Aquarium, the 23-​​year-​​old is focused on tracking the stress levels of sharks. He’s working on a portable way to mea­sure stress in the giant fish when they’re acci­den­tally cap­tured and thrown back during com­mer­cial fishing expe­di­tions. It turns out that the stress alone causes some of these species—including the ham­mer­head shark—to die.

The goal is to make it easier to col­lect infor­ma­tion that illu­mi­nates for fish­ermen and con­ser­va­tion­ists the con­nec­tion between fishing prac­tices and the overall health and sus­tain­ability of fish populations.

This is just a small piece of the larger puzzle about the con­ser­va­tion of marine life,” cau­tions Gal­lagher about the big-​​picture appli­ca­tions of his work. “But if these portable ana­lyzers can help us better gauge the phys­i­ology of threat­ened sharks, then we may be able to make more informed con­ser­va­tion decisions.”

Over the past 50 years, global shark catch increased nearly three-​​fold, peaking at roughly 900,000 in 2003. And as of last year, nearly 17 per­cent of shark and ray species landed on the Nature’s Red List of Threat­ened Species com­piled by the Switzerland-​​based Inter­na­tional Union of Con­ser­va­tion, the world’s largest envi­ron­mental net­work. As shark species con­tinue to show up on endan­gered lists, research such as Gallagher’s could become increas­ingly impor­tant in pro­tecting these com­mer­cially exploited marine animals.

Gal­lagher is con­ducting his research as part of the Three Seas grad­uate pro­gram at North­eastern, a 15-​​month master’s pro­gram during which stu­dents study marine biology in three dif­ferent aquatic environments—in Mass­a­chu­setts, the French Poly­nesia, and off the coast of Southern California.

Working with Aquarium research sci­en­tist Dr. John Man­delman, Gal­lagher is testing the reli­a­bility of a small blood ana­lyzer that could be used right on the boat, rather than pre­vious methods that were too cum­ber­some to accom­pany fish­ermen at sea. To assess the tool’s accu­racy, Gal­lagher draws blood from a caudal vein in the shark’s tail imme­di­ately after the fish is taken from the water, tests the sample using a remote blood ana­lyzer, and com­pares the value against con­ven­tional analyses.

The blood-​​sampling process resem­bles the one a physi­cian uses drawing human blood. “What I do with sharks is actu­ally quite sim­ilar,” says Gal­lagher, “but my patients have sharper teeth and are more dif­fi­cult to calm down.”

Gal­lagher credits Northeastern’s Three Seas pro­gram for giving him the jump­start he’ll need for a career in shark research. “The pro­gram is teaching me how to do sound sci­ence, col­lect my own data, and interact with the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity,” he says.

He hopes even­tu­ally to com­bine his pas­sion for sci­ence with that of film­making in order to more effec­tively com­mu­ni­cate con­ser­va­tion mes­sages. Right now, he’s awaiting the green light on a project doc­u­menting sharks and humans interacting.

To watch a trailer of Gallagher’s under­water doc­u­men­tary on marine pro­tected areas inside a Marine Reserve on California’s Catalina Island, visit www​.youtube​.com/​w​a​t​c​h​?​v​=​C​g​4​l​l​v​q​S​Ba8.